Ethics - The Matrix ...by Julia Driver
significance of The Matrix as a movie with deep philosophical
overtones is well recognized. Whenever the movie is discussed
in philosophy classes, comparisons are made with Descartes’
Meditations, particularly the dream argument and the evil genius
scenario, both of which are intended to generate skeptical doubt.
How do we know, for example, that we are awake now, rather than
merely dreaming? How do we know that our thoughts are not being
manipulated, and that our perceptions of ‘reality’
are accurate? The Matrix makes these doubts stand out vividly.
The Matrix raises many other interesting philosophical issues,
and ones that are worthy of further discussion. This essay explores
some of the moral issues raised in The Matrix. The first is
the issue of the moral status of the created beings, the ‘artificial’
intelligences, which figure into the universe of The Matrix.
The second is the issue of whether or not one can do anything
wrong in circumstances where one’s experiences are non-veridical;
that is, where one’s experiences fail to reflect reality.
The Moral Status of Programs
is a reality to the Matrix. The substance of that reality may
differ dramatically from the substance we label ‘real’
— the ‘real’ world is the desert reality that
Morpheus reveals to Neo. But it is clear that, out of the grip
of the Matrix, though still having certain dream-like experiences,
Neo and his enlightened friends are dealing with actual sentient
programs, and making decisions that have actual effects for
themselves as well as the machines and the programs. What is
the moral status of the sentient programs that populate the
Matrix, or, for that matter, the moral status of the machines
themselves? The universe of The Matrix is populated with beings
that have been created — created by programmers or created
by the machine universe itself. The agents, such as Smith, Neo’s
pursuer, are prime examples. These beings come into and go out
of existence without comment on the part of whoever controls
the switches — and without any moral debate on the part
of the humans who also would like to see the agents destroyed.
There seems to be an implicit view that their existence is less
significant, their lives of less moral import, than the lives
of ‘naturally’ existing creatures such as ourselves.
An obvious explanation for this attitude is that humans are
long accustomed to thinking of themselves as being at the center
of the universe. The geographic point changed with Copernicus.
However, our view of our dominant place in the moral universe
has stayed fixed. But, once again, science — and particularly,
now, cognitive science holds the potential for challenging this
certainty. And science fiction such as The Matrix, which explores
differing directions for these potentialities, also brings challenges
to this worldview. What The Matrix offers is a vivid thought
experiment. It is a thought experiment which makes us ask the
sort of ‘what if?’ question that leads to a change
in self conception. It forces us to see where our well accepted
moral principles would take us within one possible world.
know that killing human beings is wrong. It is wrong because
human beings have moral standing. Human beings are widely believed
to have this standing in virtue of consciousness and sentience.
For example, a rock has no moral standing whatsoever. Kicking
a rock does not harm it, and no moral rights are violated. It
is an inanimate, non-conscious object incapable of either thought
or sensation. Animals, however, are generally taken to have
some moral standing in virtue of their sentience. Kicking an
animal for no compelling reason is generally taken to be immoral.
Human beings have greater standing in virtue of their higher
rational capacities. They can experience more varied and complex
harms, and a wider range of emotional responses – such
as resentment – in virtue of their rationality. How one
came into existence is not taken to be morally significant.
Some people are the products of natural conception, and some
are the result of conception in the laboratory. This makes no
difference to the possession of those qualities we take to be
morally significant – consciousness and rationality. And,
surely, the substance from which someone is created is completely
irrelevant to the issue of moral status. If a person’s
consciousness could somehow be transferred to a metallic or
plastic robotic body, the end result would still be a person.
would seem, then, that the fact that one is created, or artificial,
is in no way relevant to one’s moral standing. And, if
this is the case, then the world of The Matrix presents underappreciated
moral complexities. Agents such as Smith, while not very pleasant,
would arguably have moral standing, moral rights. Of course,
Neo has the right to defend himself — Smith is not, after
all, an innocent. Indeed, if the religious theme is pursued,
he is an agent of darkness. But any innocent creations of the
machines — beings brought into existence to populate the
Matrix — also would have moral rights. Just as it would
be wrong to flip a switch and kill an innocent human being,
no matter how that human being came into existence, it would
be wrong to flip a switch and kill a sentient program. As long,
of course, as that program possessed the qualities we regard
as morally relevant. And this is where one of the primary issues
raised by the possibility of artificial intelligence becomes
important to the question at hand. Do these programs possess
consciousness? Since we are considering the world of The Matrix,
let’s look at what evidence seems to exist in the movie.
While we don’t have much information about the machines
themselves, their agents are on ample display.1
of course, and his colleagues seem remarkably without affect.
Yet, at critical points they do display emotions: anger, fear,
and surprise. They seem able to plan and to carry through on
a plan. Smith also displays a capacity for sadistic pleasure
— at one point he displays this, when he forces Neo’s
mouth shut. Smith also displays extreme fear near the end of
the movie, when Neo leaps through him. The agents display many,
if not all, of the responses we associate with consciousness
and sentience. But this brings us to another skeptical challenge
posed in The Matrix. How can we be sure they do posses minds,
and are not mere automata, albeit highly complex ones? Though
the movie invites this reflection, it is important to see where
this challenge can take us. The "how can I be sure?"
question can extend beyond the agents to our fellow human beings.
Since a person’s conscious experiences are essentially
private, one cannot be directly aware of another’s experiences.
We might try, as St. Augustine suggested, to solve this problem
by appeal to analogy: I do directly experience my own mental
states — I know that I am a conscious, aware, being. I
also know on the basis of observation that I am structurally
similar to other human beings. Thus, I reason by analogy, that
they must experience mental states as well.2 And, indeed, The
Matrix invites such a comparison when the agents display behavior
consistent with the experience of certain psychological states.3
then, that we believe what we are invited to believe it would
follow that the sentient programs, the cyber persons, do possess
those qualities we associate with moral standing. They have
moral rights on the basis of consciousness and sentience and
rationality. Thus, their moral standing is the same as that
of human beings.
is possible that human beings have some additional value —
a kind of antiquarian value. We are, so to speak, "the
originals." The original Mona Lisa, for example, has value
in excess of its copies. But this kind of value is not moral
value and does not reflect on the moral standing of the object,
or the moral significance of the lives themselves. The Mona
Lisa does have value, but no moral standing since it is a mere
painting; it lacks consciousness. It may be damaged, but not
harmed in the way that humans and sentient creatures can be
the machines view humans this way. To the machines, the value
of humans is mainly instrumental. They are valued as a source
of energy, but they may also have some antiquarian value. Humans
are merely relics of a past they themselves helped to destroy.
If that’s the case, the machines have turned the tables.
They are making the same moral mistake humans apparently made
in the context of The Matrix, in viewing other rational life
forms as simple instruments, to use and destroy as one wishes.
Indeed, both sides of the conflict seem to have displayed some
moral blindness. The humans, in using and destroying, and the
machines, certainly, in their subjection of the humans. But
both sides view themselves as fighting for survival, and I imagine
that Smith and Smith’s creators, as well as Neo and his
friends, would argue that moral qualms like these are a luxury.
Manipulation and Immorality
world that the pre-enlightened Neo inhabits is one made up by
machines. The machines have created a humdrum existence for
humans, to keep them happy and pacified and free of the knowledge
that they are being used as a source of energy for the machines.
Most humans believe that this world is real, but they are mistaken.
Within this world they build lives for themselves, have relationships,
eat lovely dinners, and at least seem to both create and destroy.
To some extent this existence is dream like. It isn’t
real. When the unenlightened person thinks he’s eating
a steak, he isn’t. Instead, the machines generate mental
experiences which correspond to the experience of eating a steak,
but which are non-veridical – that is, the person is not
actually eating a steak. There is no real or actual steak. The
human being’s actions, in that respect, have no real or
actual consequences in a world that exists independently of
his or her mind. However, even in this unenlightened state,
the humans do have some control, since what they ‘do’
in the Matrix has consequences which are realized in the real
world. Getting smashed by a truck in the Matrix kills the person
in reality. The Matrix offers a ‘brain-in-a-vat’
experience, but one where the experiencer does have some control.4
The enlightened can, in principle, understand the rules of the
Matrix and learn to exert that control with full understanding.5
as the steak example illustrates, there are many other ‘actions’
they perform that seem to have no effects in the real world.
The pre-enlightened Neo and most of the humans living in the
Matrix seem to be deluded. One issue raised by this is the extent
to which they can be held responsible for their actions in the
Matrix. Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that something
like wearing fur is immoral. Is simply making a choice to wear
fur, along with the belief that one is wearing fur, enough to
make one guilty of wrongdoing? Is it really only the thought
that counts, morally? A competing view is that the choices people
make must result in actual bad consequences in order for them
to be guilty of wrongdoing; or, actual good consequences in
order for them to be considered to have acted rightly. So, the
issue is that of whether or not the moral quality of a person’s
actions — its rightness or wrongness — is determined
solely by his or her subjective states, or whether, instead,
actual consequences figure into this determination.
the Matrix if fur is worn it is virtual fur, and not real —
though the wearer does not realize this. Again, this is because
he or she is being mentally manipulated. But is this a genuine
delusion? Certainly, an insane person who fails to have a grip
on reality, and is deluded in this sense, is thought to have
diminished moral responsibility for what he or she does while
deluded. Such a person is generally held to not be morally responsible
in those circumstances. He is not punished, though he may be
confined to a mental hospital and treated for his insanity.
The explanation is that the actions performed while insane are
not truly voluntary. If the persons who live in the Matrix are
similarly deluded, then it would seem that they are not responsible
for what they ‘do’ in the Matrix.
writers have argued that one cannot be held responsible for
what happens in a dream, since dreams themselves are not voluntary,
nor are the ‘actions’ one seems to perform in a
dream.6 Other writers, such as Henry David Thoreau, had the
view that what we seemed to do in a dream reflected on our character;
and the contents of dreams could reveal true virtue or vice.7
Even if the actions one performs in a dream have no actual good
or bad consequences, they reveal truths about one’s emotional
make-up, and one’s inner desires, and these, in turn are
revealing of character. But, as we’ve discussed, the Matrix
isn’t a dream. The unenlightened exist, rather, in a state
of psychological manipulation. The actions they seem to perform
don’t always have the effects (in reality) that they have
reason to expect, based on their manipulated experiences. But
even in the Matrix we can argue that they make voluntary choices.
They are not irrational. They are not like the insane. Neo believes
what any rational, reasonable person would believe under the
circumstances. The pre-enlightened are analogous to persons
who make decisions based on lies that others have told them.
They act, but without relevant information. It’s that
condition that Neo would like to rectify at the end of The Matrix.
view I favor is that without actual bad effects the actions
of those in the Matrix are not immoral. But, again, this claim
is controversial. Some would argue that it’s simply "the
thought that counts"; that it is the person’s intentions
which determine the moral quality of what he or she does. Immanuel
Kant, for example, is famous for having claimed that all that
matters, intrinsically, is a good will – actual consequences
are irrelevant to moral worth.8 However, it would then be the
case that forming bad intentions in one’s dreams is also
sufficient for immorality, and this seems highly counterintuitive.
If that’s true, then the intention to do something immoral
along with the belief that one has so acted, is enough to make
one guilty of moral wrongdoing. Instead, it seems more plausible
that it must also be the case that there is some actual bad
brought about, or at least the realistic prospect of some actual
bad consequences, and thus non-veridical ‘wrongdoing’
in the Matrix is not actual wrongdoing.
seems to be clearly the case in a dream. In a dream, when the
dreamer decides to do something bad that decision doesn’t
impact on the real world. But the Matrix is not really a dream.
If we assume that the virtual world of the Matrix is complete
— that is, completely like the real world before the machines
took over — then the virtual ‘harms’ are still
real in that they are realizized in terms of actual unpleasant
mental states. The virtual fur coat is the result then of a
virtual animal getting killed, but a virtual animal with all
the right sorts of mental states — in this case, pain
and suffering. If this is the case, then the killer, though
mistaken in thinking the dead animal ‘real’ has
still produced bad effects in the form of genuine pain and suffering.
And thus, the action is immoral even though non-veridical. However,
if the world of the Matrix is incomplete, the issue becomes
more complicated. If Cypher’s virtual steak comes from
a virtual meat locker, and the meat locker is the end of the
line — and the acquisition of the steak does not involve
the killing of a virtual animal with all the same psychology
of pain and suffering a ‘real’ animal feels, then
no moral harm has been done.
note that Thoreau’s point still holds even though the
Matrix is not exactly like a dream. That is — even if
a person hasn’t actually done anything bad, or caused
any real harm to another sentient life form, we may still make
a negative evaluation of the person’s character.
my guess is that the Matrix is a complete alternate reality
created in the image of the pre-machine reality. And the Matrix,
if it does offer such a complete replication of the pre-machine
reality, is truly a self-contained world. It has its own objects,
its own people, animals and … ethics. The systematic deception
of the humans doesn’t change this.
The issue of the moral status of the machines themselves should
be kept distinct from the issue of the moral status of the sentient
programs. I will focus on the latter issue here in discussion,
simply because the movie provides more information about the
behavior of these constructs. But the same points would hold
for the machines themselves – if they have those qualities
that are morally significant, consciousness and rationality,
then they also possess moral standing.
St. Augustine, The Trinity (8.6.9). Again, this line of reasoning
is controversial since it relies on a single case analogy.
A lot hinges on what we take to be ‘structurally similar’.
Some would argue that while the sentient programs are not themselves
structures, the machines are, and thus the machines may possess
consciousness, though the programs cannot. However, I believe
the sentient programs can be structurally similar if that’s
understood functionally – their code has structure which
provides functional equivalence to the physical states that
underlie our mental states. But, this issue would be extremely
controversial, and there isn’t enough time to delve into
it more fully here.
See Christopher Grau’s introductory essays on this site
for more on dream skepticism and brain-in-a-vat skepticism.
unenlightened, on the other hand, are constantly being "Gettiered".
A woman may have justified true belief that her husband is dead,
because she has just ‘seen’ him smashed by a truck.
But being in the Matrix she lacks true knowledge because she
is deceived in the true manner of his death.
See, for example, William Mann’s "Dreams of Immorality,"
Philosophy (1983), pp. 378-85.
Thoreau writes about this in A Week on the Concord and the Merrimack
This also is controversial, but see Kant’s Foundations
of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Lewis White Beck, and critical
essays ed. by Robert Paul Wolf (NY: MacMillan, 1969):
in the world — indeed, nothing even beyond the…world
— can possibly be conceived which could be called good
without qualification except a good will…The good will
is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes or because
of its adequacy to achieve some proposed end; it is good only
because of its willing, i.e., it is good of itself. (pp. 11-12)